…starting with the title, which reflects one of Tim Jackson’s central tenets. It should be possible to increase our “prosperity,” by which is meant our quality of life, without advocating endless increases in GDP (Gross Domestic Product) (or is it GNP… or some other formulation?) Indeed, the measure itself is profoundly flawed, as Jackson (and others) have demonstrated. The sum total of all economic transactions is a poor measure of human well-being, particularly when annual income is above $15,000, as the author’s graphs indicate. It was John Maynard Keynes who made a metaphor out of “taking in each other’s laundry”: to wit, the GDP would increase if each of us were paid for doing the other’s laundry, but it improves the quality of life not one iota. (Jackson makes the same point by stating that cleaning up car wrecks does not improve the quality of life, but it does increase GDP). The other central tenet is Jackson’s critique of consumerism… the seemingly irrational need to acquire goods beyond any conceivable physical need. Our consuming of the earth’s resources is simply not sustainable, and is a prime motive force causing the now familiar “global warming.” With both of Jackson’s points, I am solidly in the “Amen corner.”
But Jackson never really addresses the “elephant in the room”: global human population growth. In fact, four to five times in the book he accepts it as a “given” that the world’s population will be 9 billion in 2050, and we must make adjustments now to accommodate all these new people. Why not just accept the fact that the world’s temperature will increase 2 degrees Celsius by the same date, and make the necessary accommodations? Jackson’s first graph is a plot of “economic growth” vs. “ecological overshoot” over time (the latter is a rather fuzzy concept)… but should not this first graph concerned “population growth”? Indeed should we not actively be striving to determine the optimum population for the planet in direct conjunction with human’s impact on the earth’s warming?
The book was published in 2009, with the “economic meltdown” of 2008 not very far in the rear view mirror. Another of Jackson’s “givens” is that the financial system had to be bailed out, and those who wanted to seize the opportunity to have more meaningful reforms were dubbed “revolutionaries.” But is the concept of eliminating “a bank too big to fail,” through meaningful anti-trust laws, “revolutionary”? Teddy Roosevelt, where are you now that we need you? Jackson never addressed the specific mechanisms that the Federal Reserve used to bail out Wall Street via the expansion of its “balance sheet” through bond purchases (a dressed up version of printing money – but only for a select few) and the 100% tax rate it imposed on savers (by fixing interest rates at almost zero). The government bails out the super-rich from their follies, at least at 100 cents on the dollar, and is only willing “to hear the pain” (and do nothing about it!) of the 99%. This should have been a central focus of this book, and was not.
In his chapter entitled “The Iron Cage of Consumerism” Jackson restates and rehashes many of the points made by Vance Packard over a half century ago in Status Seekers (that is, we purchase goods to “one-up” our friends and neighbors) and The Waste Makers. Jackson’s statements on page 97: “The cycles of creative destruction become ever more frequent. Product lifetimes plummet as durability is designed out of consumer goods and obsolescence is designed in. Quality is sacrificed relentlessly to volume throughput,” could have come directly from the latter work.
Finally, Jackson’s last chapters address ways in which we might be able to move towards a sustainable economy and a lasting prosperity without ever addressing the issue that we have moved away from both of these goals since the days of Vance Packard, and in particular, WHY we have moved away from them. (Packard is not listed in the references). Could it be that the power elites (nor is C. Wright Mills listed!) are quite comfortable with the existing social and economic order which provides a vast “pool” of insecure labor to do its bidding? But don’t get me started… since Jackson never did commence addressing any of these issues. As a final comment, I found much of the prose beset by turgidity as well as tautological platitudes. Alas, I really wanted to like this book, instead, 2-stars.
Génial livre sur un monde alternatif et très concret. Je le conseille à tous ceux qui veux approfondir leurs point de vue sur l'altermondialisme, nouveau capitalisme et mouvements environnementalistes. Bonne lecture!
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